Less than a month after the dramatic win over Pitt, the UC Bearcats will enter their second BCS bowl game ever New Year's night against the Florida Gators. While the season progressed with focus and efficiency, the end of the season has been all over the charts.
The previous coach, Brian Kelly,
elected to not finish the job and left to start another at Notre
Dame. The interim coach Jeff Quinn, did not get the full-time job and
now will move on to head up Buffalo's program as the new year begins.
The new coach, Butch Jones came from Central Michigan where no
doubt the Chippewas are feeling the same pain and angst as Bearcat
fans having lost their coach. Now, Florida's Urban Meyer is stepping down after the Sugar Bowl "indefinitely". And, the game's all about the kids, right?
It can be disconcerting and discombobulating.
Unless you're a young male 18-24 that plays college football.
As fans, we have mixed emotions. Some are angry and want to crash bobblehead's of the old coach on You Tube. Others are publicly diplomatic. Some pretend to be diplomatic, but will laugh heartily at every Irish loss.
I think they just want to play and prove a point to themselves. As many have gone on record as saying, "No coach has scored a touchdown, completed a pass,etc." Who knows, maybe in leaving, Brian Kelly gave the Bearcats the best motivation ever to win the Sugar Bowl.
And, maybe Jeff Quinn also has something to prove in calling his own plays. He can simultaneously prove that he can win without Brian Kelly (which actually he did with Central Michigan as the interim in the '06 Motor City Bowl) and he can prove his worth to the University of Buffalo.
As added incentive, new Head Coach Butch Jones will be looking on. While he's not actively coaching the squad, he has addressed them and he undoubtedly will be watching and evaluating the game. Either way, Jones will have a valuable machine with many intricate parts returning for 2010.
While the players want to finish the string on a positive note against the Gators, subconsciously they have to know "the new guy" is watching and positions could be up for grabs.
Whatever the motivation may be, you hope the Bearcats surpass last New Year's effort against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Mentally, you hope they're better prepared for the glitz and glamor. Physically, you hope they're better prepared to meet the challenge on defense.
Two-hand tag-off, this is not.
They also have to understand
that they're playing guys of similar age and talent. While the
defending national champions are impressive, there is no "S" on
the chest of any Florida uniform. Tim Tebow is one of the more
gifted athletes in the sport, but he is not a Marvel Comic Superhero. Urban Meyer? He won't play one down in the Superdome.
At any rate, perfection is within reach. It doesn't come around much.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that "13" was an unlucky number. On January 1st, it'll be the most sought after number in the history of the University of Cincinnati.
THINGS YOU PROBABLY KNEW THAT ARE USUALLY CONTAINED IN PREVIEWS
DATE: January 1, 2010
WHEN TO PAY ATTENTION: 8:30 p.m. EST
VENUE: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
SERIES: Florida leads 1-0
LAST TILT: Florida over UC 48-17 on 10/20/84 (Florida coach Urban Meyer, a UC grad, had three solo tackles for the Bearcats)
UC OFFENSE VS. FLORIDA DEFENSE
Very interesting match-up as UC leads the nation in passing efficiency and is sixth in scoring, passing and total offense. Conversely, Florida is third in scoring defense and fourth in total defense. However, Alabama found a way to score 32 on the Gators and advance to the national championship game. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who missed the 'Bama game after a DUI arrest, will be back for this one and along with LB Ryan Stamper, they'll be attempting to disrupt Tony Pike and the UC passing game.
What's tough to ignore is Florida's defense has only given up 15 touchdowns (six runs, seven passes and two INTs). In the Southeast Missouri State game alone, the Bearcats had 10. While the Bearcats average close to 40 points, outside of the 'Bama loss, the most the Gators have given up is 20 to Arkansas. Needless to say, Jeff Quinn and the offensive staff have their work cut out for them. Florida features AP All-America CB Joe Haden (first team) and second teamer LB Brandon Spikes. Spikes has a knack for finding passes and the endzone, while Haden leads the Gators in picks with four.
Florida though has not faced an offense that challenges them as much from the air. While the obvious focus will be on Mardy Gilyard,--Armon Binns, D.J. Woods and Ben Guidugli have all given teams fits that have ignored them. You can't double all of them, so if Pike has time to pass, I'd suspect UC will move the ball. That being said, Alabama beat the Gators by taking it to them. Sure, UC doesn't feature a Heisman winner like Mark Ingram in the backfield, but Isaiah Pead has shown he can run (175 vs. West Virginia) plus UC should have a healthier John Goebel back and there's always the possibility of a Zach Collaros appearance. If the Bearcats can rack up some running yards and hit some passes to the backs, that could open up some "home run" plays.
While the Gator Nation hopes for an improved performance after losing a title game shot, the reality is there could be some natural "loss of inspiration" for this game. Of course, we won't know how it plays out 'til New Year's night.
NOD: UC should be able to invade Florida's secondary, however the running yards could come tough. The key here is ball security. If Pike misfires as he did in the Orange Bowl, this could get ugly. I'd expect Jeff Quinn to do a little more on the ground than Brian Kelly would have.
FLORIDA OFFENSE VS. UC DEFENSE
The formula was evident in the SEC championship game and it's not nuclear physics for UC. Stop the run. Stop Tebow. Control the clock. Tebow got his yards against the Crimson Tide, but the Gator backs were ineffective. Forced to throw, the Gators have weapons, but it's not their strong suit. Plus, they're down a receiver now with Brandon James out. Tebow's top target is another first team AP All-American in TE Aaron Hernandez, while David Nelson is a clutch catcher from the WR spot. Having a healthy Drew Frey is essential to stopping the Gator throwing game, while you can hope seniors Aaron Webster and Brad Jones go out with a "bang".
Again though, it all begins and ends with stopping Tebow. I would think UC in their practice time might go back to Travis Kelce who ran some "Tebow/Wildcat" formations early in the year. With some good scout team work, perhaps UC can zero in on what #15 might do with the football. Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer actually shared some plays in the preseason, so UC might be familiar with some of the Gator "looks", but the same goes for Meyer's Gators and some of UC's schemes.
Truth is, handling Tebow and the Pouncey brothers (G Mike and C Maurkice) will be difficult. This is where senior Alex Daniels needs to back up some of his post-banquet talk. This is where Curtis Young, Ricardo Mathews, Andre Revels and many of the seniors on this unsung defense can write their names in the chapters of Bearcat folklore. The UC defense has been "dissed" all year since they only returned one starter from last year's Orange Bowl team. However, they've played the style they were instructed to and the fact is, 12-0 is the only stat that really matters.
NOD: Tim Tebow is an ultra competitor and will find a way to move the ball against the Bearcats. If UC can keep that movement between the 20s, they'll be in business. If the Gators work consistently in a short field, the strategy could again turn to "last team to score wins". Turnovers and momentum will be crucial in this one.
A crushing blow for Florida was losing returner Brandon James who has a slew of SEC and Florida kick return marks. On the other hand, Florida has no shortage of athletes waiting on their chance. The more Jake Rogers can keep the ball from the Gators on kickoffs and punts, the better. For Florida, they have to deal with Mardy Gilyard whose return marks are nothing to sneeze about. Based on the past, I'd be surprised if Meyer kicked to Gilyard either, so this could give Darrin Williams some kickoff opportunities.
Caleb Sturgis is Florida's kicker and he's been more consistent than Rogers and has as explosive a leg (having booted a 56-yarder against Georgia). Chas Henry was a Ray Guy finalist at punter, so this is definitely a game where you wished Kevin Huber (Bengals punter) had another year of eligibility.
NOD: This is where a lot of games are won and lost and it could easily be the factor in this one. The kicking edge definitely goes to Florida, while UC fans have to hope Mardy Gilyard has one more magical return left in him. Again, kicking in the Superdome, there is no wind, so the kicking conditions are perfect.
THROW IT OUT AND SEE WHERE IT STICKS
It goes without saying that this is the biggest game in the history of UC football, surpassing last season's Orange Bowl. Like last season, the Bearcats are actually ranked higher than their opponent, but let's face facts....this is Florida. These are the defending national champions who were ranked at the top of the heap all season long. In the past, when UC played Florida (1984) it was as a designated homecoming/cupcake. When Urban Meyer was a Bearcat in the mid 80s, UC played the Gators, the Miami Hurricanes, Auburn and Alabama. That schedule wasn't to impress the pollsters, it was meant to impress the bank.
Now, not only are the Bearcats playing for BCS dollars, they're expected to be competitive. What will decide this game is whether or not everyone buys in to the concept of "we belong". If the mindset is, "Oh wow, we're playing Florida!" the result might not be favorable. If they can look at the Gators as just another team in the way, perhaps they can take care of business. While there's no doubting Florida's greatness, they weren't exactly overwhelming in wins over Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina--all teams that UC should compete with.
Will the impending "indefinite leave of abscence" of Urban Meyer play a part? Well, on TV it certainly will. You hope that Fox realizes there's a game going on in between the verbal worship of Meyer and the departed Brian Kelly. On the field, the speculation points toward Florida, just ask ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit who confidently predicted, "Florida will now DESTROY Cincinnati!"
I'm hoping Jeff Quinn has had the video crew pull that clip and they play that over and over in the Superdome locker room. Never in the history of college football will a team ranked higher than their opponent be such a decided underdog. It's as if the Bearcat staff will just throw up their hands in desperation and start drinking Hurricanes rather than prepare for the game now.
I say, based on history, the Bearcats have dealt with more change and adversity than Florida and they're not about to take a "60-minute knee" just because Urban Meyer MIGHT be coaching his last game.
While Florida will certainly be up for the contest initially, the big question is--can they sustain it? They missed out on the BCS game and this is still their consolation
prize. They're losing their defensive coordinator to Louisville and
their WR coach has already left. They're also in jeopardy of losing
a number of juniors to the NFL. Then there's the fact that Florida
fans haven't exactly been beating down the doors in Gainesville to
get Sugar Bowl tickets. Their student sales were such that they had
to offer discounts and some of their allotment was given to UC when
they couldn't sell them. That might change now, with Meyer's "I'm leaving/not leaving" announcements.
On the other hand, if Florida for some reason falters in this one early, the Gator fans might opt for "first dibs" on Bourbon Street to drown out their frustrations. How this all plays out, no one can predict. But, it goes to reason that the Gators could easily underestimate UC with all that's on their table.
In the end, both teams have had major distractions the past month and it's all going to come down to who deals with the off-field issues the best ON THE FIELD. In other words, who will "tune out" all of December and focus on three-plus hours on the first day of the year.
For players and fans alike, savor the moment and make the most of it. If all goes by plan (and borrowing from the legendary Hank Williams) "son of a gun, we'll have great fun by the Bayou!"